Friday, 30 October 2009

Mining the Past in Bulgaria

As part of what seems to be a series of articles dealing with the looting of Bulgaria's cultural heritage in the Sofia Echo of Fri, Oct 30 2009, Gabriel Hershman wrote an article ("Risky business") discussing the Australian documentary Plundering the Past presented by David O’Shea discussed earlier here. The collectors who buy dugups produced by treasure hunting claim it is not their fault because the people who dig up the items which they buy have no jobs – so go out digging up old stuff to sell. But the film poses the question of morals, is poverty an excuse for robbing a nation’s heritage?

The documentary focuses on just one site affected by the recent plague of looting, the site of Ratiaria - a former Roman settlement near Archar in north-west Bulgaria. Here the state authorities - the police, lawmakers and the courts – have for a number of reasons failed to crack down on activities. O’Shea interviewed Todor Chobanov Deputy Minister of Culture who talks of the problems caused by the “very willing buyers who will give huge amounts of money for artifacts and goods” and adds: “the profits are comparable to those of the drugs trade”.

In an earlier post I give a link to where readers can access this video. In it O’Shea went out in the field with some treasure hunters. They claim they have no choice but to do what they do, saying that "work that existed for them during communism has disappeared". A recurrent theme throughout the film is that since the collapse of communism a kind of Wild West capitalism has prospered in Bulgaria. The excavators themselves are poor and desperate, pawns of greedy organised crime gangs for whom valuable Roman Thracian remains – pottery and glass from graves, stone and bronze figurines, artefacts of all types and especially coins - provide rich pickings. "Everyone digs here, by hand or with a pickaxe. Most diggers make very little money. A few people make big money, but not us - the diggers," one villager tells presenter David O’Shea. They do not take kindly to closer interest being shown in their illicit activities. O'Shea notes that even filming the treasure hunters he received death threats. "These guys are poor", he was warned by a local archaeologist, "but sometimes they carry guns and might even shoot".

After talking to these people, O’Shea gave an interview and notes that instead of taking avantage of the new conditions offered by the xpanding post-Communist economy "those people are sitting around, complaining that they’ve got no money, and that they are forced to go hunting for treasure, and the state appears to be doing very little about it, and the police are clearly not serious about it."

We saw earlier that the collectors that finance this digging by buying the artefacts it produces say that the sites should in some way be guarded to prevent people going onto them, this is of course an entirely impractical proposition to place armed guards on every single archaeological site in every country where the archaeological heritage is being looted to feed foreign markets.
Surely the most important step in stopping the looting would be to come down hard on all those buying the products. Make the stuff unsaleable by cutting off the producers from the consumers. That would include more aggressively pursuing those abroad who knowingly handle material coming from this disreputable process. An even more direct means to achieve this would be for concerned consumers (if there are any in reality) to play their role, by boycotting antiquity sellers who offer dugup material without any proof that it does NOT come from this looting.

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